Colin Farrell and Yorgos Lanthimos on the ‘Awkward, Sinister’ World of ‘The Lobster’
It’s the near-distant future and your husband or wife has left you. Instead of joining Tinder or OKCupid, you check into The Hotel. There you have 45 days to find a new partner, and if you fail you’re transformed into the animal of your choosing, then released into The Forest to live out your days. Is this a foreshadowing of our future? Maybe, but it’s also the plot of Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Lobster.
It’s a rare treat to experience a film as elaborate and original in concept as The Lobster, which tells a tragic and poignant story of romance with a warped, deadpan sense of humor. Those who’ve seen 2010’s Dogtooth — which follows three adult siblings who can’t leave home until their incisor falls out (hint: it doesn’t) — or Alps are familiar with the filmmaker’s absurdist comedy and dark look at human behavior. In The Lobster, Lanthimos and his writing partner Efthymis Filippou explore society’s fixation with couples and co-dependence through Colin Farrell’s David, a middle-aged single man who opts to become the titular crustacean should he fail to find love.
I sat down with Farrell and Lanthimos in a lavish hotel lounge in midtown Manhattan, which didn’t feel far from the polished settings of David’s residence. Farrell and Lanthimos discussed David (who’s miles from any character Farrell has played before), blending violence and tragedy with humor, and what animal they’d choose to become in real life.
Yorgos, this film has some similarities to Dogtooth, but is of a much bigger scale. With your films, does the writing process start by focusing on the dark humor or the social worlds on which you’re commenting?
Lanthimos: I’ve been working very closely with a friend of mine, Efthymis Filippou. We wrote Dogtooth and The Lobster together. We both have a very particular way of approaching things and we found that we could work together well. It starts with a dialogue about things we’re interested in, situations we’ve observed, a glimpse of a situation that might seem interesting. Then we just try and put that into the context of a story or situation. [...] The tone each time, it’s mostly dictated by theme. We never decide, “This film is going to be much funnier, or this is going to be much darker.” For some reason it reveals itself. Obviously our films probably have a similar fabric in tone, but I think they are quite different. And it’s not a conscious decision. It’s the theme that leads us to writing them in a certain way.
Colin, David is very different from any character you’ve played before. He’s so defeated and innocent, and he has that pot belly. What was it like to play someone like that?
Farrell: Nothing screams lost in the battlefield of self-esteem quite like the pot belly, for David. It was lovely. It was very different, and I know from talking to the other actors. I remember someone saying to me it was a very different thing than I’ve done. But I was like, “But it’s a very different thing than anyone has done.” Because it’s so different, fundamentally. It’s so different from what’s been made or being made. The character, he was lovely. Quite simple. Nice chap. Wouldn’t do a day’s harm to you. About, as I supposed without quantifying, about as guileless a character as I could ever hope to play. Certainly no subterfuge or anything like that.
But more than the character was the world that the character was inhabiting. Just how awkward and unusual and sinister — in a world where a common kitchen appliance like a toaster can represent what it comes to represent in this film, you’re scared shitless the whole time because there’s ghosts around every corner, there’s something wrong everywhere. I had seen Dogtooth, so I had a sense of how particular a filmmaker Yorgos was. I didn’t know what the process of working with him was going to be. I subsequently found out the hell that that was [laughs]. Nah, it was a dream actually. And it wasn’t as morbid as one might think from looking at the material. I think for all of us — someone was asking earlier about Yorgos doing a film with an international cast. It never felt like he was coming into another world. It was us going into his world, all of us together based on a shared love of the work he had created.
Was it more of a challenge to play a character that’s so simple, as you say?
Farrell: No, I’m pretty simple. It’s finally nice to play something close to the self.
Lanthimos: You’re not doing justice to David. He’s not that simple.
Farrell: No, no, he’s not. I like it, I like when [Lanthimos] gets defensive over my character. I shouldn’t make statements on other characters, but I think David maybe has a little more loneliness. Like true sad, plaintive, melancholy loneliness than just maybe the fear that dominates the other characters, like having to find a partner. David’s got his own fears as well, but he’s okay with choosing a lobster.
What was the nature on set for you both with a film that’s as dark as it is emotional and violent?
Farrell: All of those worlds seem to coexist at all times. The humor, and if there’s pathos and horror. The world is a continual kaleidoscope of different human themes all clashing together, and then stillness and then clashing together. To refer to the toaster thing, you don’t really know what is around the next corner or how much treachery lies ahead. You know that the world is not what it’s presented to be, which guess what, the world we live in is not what it’s presented to be. Some places it’s safer than we’re told it is, and other places it’s not as safe as we’re told it is. But it didn’t seem jarring. It wasn’t like, this scene is more funny so it’s a lighter mood, or this scene is more violent so it’s a darker mood. There was a pervasive continuation of mood, which was pretty good the whole time. Just these different themes that were fluidly clashing together, if that’s possible.
Yeah, that mixture comes off in the film.
Farrell: Good. Like an awkwardness, an awkwardness that everyone is okay with.
In the second viewing I found it even funnier.
Farrell: Sure, because maybe it was a bit shocking the first time?
Yeah, especially entering it blindly and not knowing anything about the world.
Farrell: Yeah, I have friends that saw it once and said they really need to see it again.
What animals would you two choose in real life?
Farrell: Bird, man.
Lanthimos: I always say I’d be a bird.
Farrell: Same. I think a seagull, maybe.
Farrell: No idea. Genuinely. If I did, I’d probably have to say I didn’t anyway.
Yorgos, what are you working on next? Will you do another English-language film?
Lanthimos: Well that, yes, it will be an English-language film. Which one, I'm not really sure.
Will you be writing and directing again?
Lanthimos: Yes. We’ve written a film and we’re going to try to put it together soon. It’s a bit of a psychological thriller with supernatural elements.
Farrell: I’ll say! [Laughs]
You know the story?
Farrell: I do, it’s wonderful.
[It was announced this week at Cannes that Farrell is reuniting with Lanthimos for his next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer]
The Lobster opens May 13.